The Winnipeg Jets have made the playoffs for the first time since moving from Atlanta in 2011 and you have to bet they’ll be ready for anything. “Anything” in this case means the Anaheim Ducks, who are the top seed in the Western Conference for the second time in a row. They’re also the Pacific Division champs for the third time in a row under head coach Bruce Boudreau.
The problem for the Ducks is that they’ve somehow managed to lose two straight Game Sevens at home to a lower seeded team in each of the past two post-seasons. They haven’t seen action in the latter half of the playoffs since winning it all in 2007 and this year they’ll be hungry for more – a lot more.
The Ducks won three games against the Jets in the regular season and scored four goals in each of those contests, but the two teams haven’t tangled since January and likely won’t be all that familiar. That should lead to some interesting matchups. The Jets will be a fiery hockey club, coming off a franchise record 99 points, and they’ll be hoping to make the most out of this trip to the Promised Land.
Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf continue to be the offensive linchpins of the Ducks. Perry had 33 goals despite missing 15 games with injuries, while Getzlaf had 25 goals in 77 games. The captain’s point totals were lower than last season, but he still found himself in the middle of a lot of Hart Trophy conversation and he’ll still certainly be a factor in the post-season.
Ryan Kesler had 47 points in 81 games, including 20 goals. That made for his best offensive season since 2011-2012 and he went 56.3 percent in the faceoff circle. The former Canuck has been pesky at both ends of the ice and he has the ability to make game-changing plays in his 19 or so minutes on the ice.
Matt Beleskey is another factor, with an impressive eight game-winning goals. He had 32 points in 65 games and will put in time on the top line. Also a possibility for a top line winger is Jiri Sekac, the 22-year-old Czech winger. He put up 23 points, but he has a nose for the net and the ability to create offensive opportunities.
The Jets boast a stellar top line in Blake Wheeler, Bryan Little and Andrew Ladd. Ladd put up 62 points in 81 games, a career high in points, and Little had 52 points in 70 games. Little missed 11 games due to injury in March, but he still topped 20 goals for the third time in the past four seasons. Wheeler had 61 points in 79 games, including four short-handed goals.
Wheeler saw time between the first and second lines, but he seemed to blend really well with Mark Scheifele when he was on the second unit. Scheifele had 15 goals and 49 points, including three power play goals. Drew Stafford has been a nice fit on that second line, having arrived after the Jets got rid of Evander Kane. Stafford put up 18 goals in 76 games.
The rest of the roster rounds out well, too, with a lot of versatile players like Mathieu Perreault and Michael Frolik capable of playing anywhere in the top nine. Perreault can play centre or left wing and excels on the forecheck, while Frolik put up 19 goals in 82 games and had three short-handed goals. Perreault is still questionable for Game One, so stay tuned.
The Ducks acquired Simon Despres and James Wisniewski ahead of the NHL Trade Deadline. Wisniewski will be scratched for Game One because coach Bruce Boudreau favours the pairing of Clayton Stoner and Sami Vatanen, the latter of whom led the Ducks in power play goals. One has to imagine Wisniewski’s booming power play shot will be missed, so maybe he’ll make an appearance later in the series.
Francois Beauchemin and Hampus Lindholm should remain a sturdy pair. Beauchemin put up a career high in goals with 11 and Lindholm is his perfect complement. Both players are solid when it comes to playing in their own end, but there’s still a lack of top-tier shutdown defencemen on the club and that could prove a problem.
Winnipeg was hit by the injury bug and had to make some adjustments. They lost their top four defencemen to injuries in December, which caused the shuffling of Dustin Byfuglien from the forward position to his natural D-man spot. This was a good fit and he put up big numbers while providing a serious physical presence that put fear in the hearts of the opposition on most nights.
Having Tyler Myers in the fold also helps. Myers was acquired in a trade that saw the departure of Zach Bogosian. He’s been a steady presence with a big shot and big physical power, plus he can log major minutes. Tobias Enstrom is also a piece of the puzzle for the Jets and he’ll bring his puck-moving abilities to help build the rush out of Winnipeg’s own end.
Ducks goalie Frederik Andersen has been amazing at times and he’ll be ready for the playoffs this year. He put up 35 wins this season and tied an NHL record from 1944 for the fastest goalie to 50 wins in his career. He’s the presumed starter, but he will have John Gibson breathing down his neck and that should provide motivating fire. Boudreau, as he did with Wisniewski, won’t be afraid to change things up if he feels a change in the winds.
Ondrej Pavelec and Michael Hutchinson are both in the mix for the Jets. Pavelec took back the starting job after losing it to Hutchinson in March, but he’s had to be good if not great in order to keep the post. That situation will replicate itself in the playoffs, with Hutchinson – much like Gibson in Anaheim – nipping at Pavelec’s heels. It could be a goalie battle within a goalie battle for the Jets.
The Jets will have a lot of excitement going into this series and that’s a very good thing, but they can’t get running around in their own end if they hope to succeed. These Ducks can pounce and pounce quickly. They’re the sort of team to quietly beat you and Winnipeg will have to watch out for the little things as much as they’ll have to avoid mistakes. If they can keep their composure, they’ll win. If not, it could be a short series.